Oral History on Cheltenham’s Lower High Street

By Tom Adams (Second Year Undergraduate History Student)

In a new series of posts, History students at the University of Gloucestershire will be outlining progress on new research projects for the 2019 Gloucester History Festival.

As part of a research internship on my degree in History, I took the opportunity to investigate the history of the Lower High street area in Cheltenham as part of the ongoing research project, Cheltenham’s Lower High Street: Past, Present & Future. Often perceived as being a less prestigious area of the town, this Lower High Street now has an abundance of different cultures and nationalities, incorporating a mixture of different shops and markets, including barber shops, liquor stores, restaurants, takeaways, and clothing stores. This is the Cheltenham I currently live in, but I took up this placement as I was curious to find out more about the area and the people that once lived there decades ago. This, of course entailed talking to people that used to inhabit this area.

Firstly, Dr Christian O’Connell gave me an audio recording to transcribe from an interview conducted as part of the project. This allowed me to gain an understanding of the sort of questions to ask, the methodology of asking questions and the techniques to consider when conducting an oral history interview. The interview was with a lady called Lynn Ricketts, who grew up in the area. She gave an insight into what life was like living there during the second half of the twentieth century, which was very much in line with the memories of other interviewees who recalled a bustling neighbourhood and were nostalgic for the tightly knit communities that surrounded the High Street. She also remarked how the area had changed and deteriorated over the years.

Following on from this interview, I arranged an interview of my own with Jess Harrod, a lady who coincidently works at the University of Gloucestershire. There were a number of questions I prepared concerning the life in the area. I was particularly interested to find out if the people that lived on the Lower High Street were mixed with the members of society that lived in the more prestigious areas of ‘Regency Cheltenham,’ or whether they lived completely separate lives. Her response was interesting. From memory she said that there was very little interaction between the two sides of Cheltenham and in fact, a vast majority of people that lived in the Lower High Street area never even visited places like the Promenade or Montpellier, which was surprising. In addition, I also found out that Jess’s grandparents owned the beloved Wembley Café that was extremely popular to many of the residents in the area, and is even mentioned in the famous Lower High Street poem. The Café was burnt down in 1979, amazingly, no one was hurt and no one ever found out the cause of the fire. However, after it burnt down, the event was so big it actually made it as a story in the Echo newspaper. After the fire, the building was abandoned by Jess’s grandparents and was to be a café no more.

Gloucestershire Echo article from 1979 reporting the fire at the Wembley Cafe.’

I was also intrigued to find out about the day to day lives of people that lived in the area, what they did for entertainment and their quality of life. Through interviewing Jess I found out that community was everything. Unlike today, children spent all day outside playing, or in Jess’ case, hanging around her grandparents Café. It seems to have been a really happy place, everyone knew everyone, and the area was, in essence, self-sufficient. No one needed to visit the Promenade, everything that people needed to live was within an arm’s reach, be that the butchers, bakery, or indeed shops such as the Wembley Café. Having read some of the reports from last year on the Lower High Street area, her memories were in contrast to stories I’d read about violent crime. Having asked Jess this very question I found out that there were indeed murders that took place in the area. Jess told me about one which took place not too far from her Grandparents café, where a boy called Murray Pugh was stabbed in March 1993. The murder also made it to the Echo newspaper, and as a result of the murder a ‘Murray Pugh Memorial Fund’ was set up to offer assistance of up to £2,000 to students and staff working with children with special needs at the University of Gloucestershire, and to children with physical disabilities themselves at the university.

Where the Wembley Cafe’ used to be on the corner of the Lower High Street and King Street.

This whole investigative process has helped develop my understanding of the importance of oral history. As oral historians Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson suggest, ‘the interviewing of eye-witness participants in the events of the past for the purposes of historical reconstruction has transformed the practice of contemporary history in many countries.’ I think I also agree with their metaphor that ‘every old man that dies is a library that burns.’ In addition, by working on the Lower High Street project, I have seen how ‘oral history has allowed access so that social groups in communities are often inadequately or even completely unrepresented by traditional archival sources’ (Peter Claus and John Marriott, History: An Introduction to Methods, Theory and Practice, 2012). Through my own investigation and conducting of interviews, I have truly developed a sound understanding of the practice of oral history.

‘Cheltenham: Diaspora’ project secures HLF funding.

The History team at the University of Gloucestershire, and the Cotswolds Centre for History and Heritage, is pleased and excited to announce that a Heritage Lottery Fund award has been granted in support of the forthcoming ‘Cheltenham: Diaspora’ project.

‘Cheltenham: Diaspora’ will explore narratives of migration in Cheltenham. The town has a long history of being a gateway to the south west, however relatively little work has been done to document the narratives of those migrating into the area. This project will focus on the more recent history of Cheltenham and record oral testimonies of first and second generation migrants living in Cheltenham today.

University of Gloucestershire History students worked closely with communities in Cheltenham as part of the Lower High Street project. Picture by Clint Randall http://www.pixelprphotography.co.uk

Stories of travel, culture, change and community are all of vital importance to understanding the way our communities have become what they are today. All too often, however, these stories are left undocumented until it is too late. ‘Cheltenham: Diaspora’ creates the ideal opportunity to work with local communities, to help them record their own history, and become custodians of their story, while sharing it with a significantly wider audience.

‘Cheltenham: Diaspora’ will focus on recording stories of migration, but it will also look to provide training opportunities to members of the community and students based with the University. It is hoped that, following training in recording of oral histories, this is a project that will be taken on and maintained by people living in Cheltenham. Project results will be maintained in an online archive, in addition to a touring exhibition based on the community led research.

This project follows on from the success of other community history projects led by the History team at the University of Gloucestershire, including the very successful ‘Lower High Street’ project in 2016-2017. In a ten day period, over 1000 people visited a pop-up exhibition celebrating the history of the Lower High Street, demonstrating the huge value placed on these local stories by the surrounding community. ‘Cheltenham: Diaspora’ looks to build on the success of these past projects, while giving greater voice to the significant cultural diversity found in Cheltenham.

The History team would like to thank the Heritage Lotter Fund, and National Lottery players, for their support, without which this project would not be possible.
‘Cheltenham: Diaspora’ formally commences in July, 2018, and training opportunities will be made available and advertised once the project is underway.

For any questions, queries or general interest regarding the ‘Cheltenham: Diaspora’ project please contact dhowell1@glos.ac.uk, or follow the History team at Cheltenham on twitter or on our facebook page. You can find information about other recent and ongoing projects via the Cotswolds Centre for Heritage and History website: http://www.cc4hh.co.uk

The Centenary of the End of the Great War in Cheltenham

Project Group: Rebecca Humphrey, Rhian James, Lily Lord, Bertie Lyman

Our group is looking at the centenary of the end of World War One and the effect on the local area in Cheltenham. After visiting the archives as a source of preliminary research we decided to divide the project into three separate areas.

After setting up a simple timeline outlining the events of the Great War, we are going to provide a case-study of a specific area in Cheltenham, allowing us to research the impact on a direct local area. As we already know, Cheltenham racecourse was converted into a military hospital, so we think that this might be an interesting area to study due to the massive change in purpose. However, we are also interested in studying the St Paul’s area, as this housed two schools as well as having a large residential population. The impact of the war on both of these separate areas would have been considerable and so we hope this will form an interesting section of our project.

Mary Ann Young: the only woman listed on the FCH WWI Memorial Board

We would like to look at the impact of the war on specific people. We have already completed research on the soldiers who fought in the war from both St Paul’s college and other schools, working with the university archives to aid our research. From this point, we have decided to choose 3 specific case-studies to research for our final piece, including not only a soldier from the school here, but perhaps someone who was not killed in battle as well. Mary Young was the only woman to be commemorated in the university memorial boards.

Finally, we have been researching memorials in Cheltenham. In addition to this, we have a specific interest in how exactly the end of the war was celebrated in the town. We are planning to combine both aspects of this commemoration of the end of the war to provide an overview of the legacy and impact of the war, both immediately and throughout time.

Order of Service for the Cheltenham War Memorial Unveiling Ceremony, 5 November 1922

Through the research and presentation of each of these areas, we are hoping to provide a comprehensive and interesting overview of the impact of the Great War in Cheltenham. We are hoping that through studying specific areas, people and dates we can provide a good insight into the time whilst humanising the event and provoking emotion in anyone who reads our project findings.

Women’s Suffrage in Cheltenham

Project Group: Anna Cardy, Laura Collins, Bradley Dickinson, James Juden, Sharmaine Roch, Dan Wills

This year marks the centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People’s Act by which women over the age of thirty gained the vote in Britain. Our group has been tasked with looking at the suffragette movement in Cheltenham and Gloucestershire. We decided that our best plan of action was to research and gather as much information surrounding the subject as possible. Following this, we met and discussed our research, deciding that we were individually each to focus on one aspect of our research findings to cover the subject efficiently.

Sharmaine’s focus of the project will primarily look at the nationwide movement of the 1911 census evasion, with an emphasis on Cheltenham and Gloucestershire. This strategy of opposition was reinforced by the idea of the ‘No Vote, No Census’ movement whereby women were encouraged to evade the census on the night of recording. Women argued that if they were not considered a citizen, they should not be included in official citizen documentation. Sharmaine has also been in contact with the Wilson Gallery in Cheltenham which once held an exhibition commemorating the suffrage movement.

Although she has made some progress and has been given bits of information about the exhibition pieces, she has yet to hear from the curators about whether the group will be granted permission to take photos of some of the exhibition pieces for our own exhibition. Nevertheless, this discussion is on-going, and we hope to hear from the Wilson soon. With regards to future research and progress, Sharmaine’s basis for research is growing and she hopes to visit Gloucestershire Archives in the nearby future to expand this further.

Dan and Brad’s focus for this project is the militant action in and around Gloucestershire. Cheltenham was a significant location in the suffrage movement in the South-West (second to Bristol). During our exploration of local news articles researching militancy during the suffrage campaign, we came across a discussion that arose multiple times concerning whether the suffrage movement was hindered by the few violent acts that suffragettes conducted during 1913-14, these being three separate acts of arson. The research explores whether or not suffrage demands would have been recognised without the acts of the militants, or whether the suffragettes harmed the image of the suffrage movement as a whole, possibly hindering and altering the public’s view on Cheltenham’s suffrage campaign.

Despite the national direction of militant and violent action, suffragette activities were rare in Cheltenham during this period. One of the rare examples of suffragette militancy in Cheltenham was the Alstone Lawn arson attack, committed on 21 December 1913 by two suffragettes who were later identified by local papers as ‘Red’ and ‘Black’. The two women were promptly arrested the next day and subsequently went on hunger strike. This was reported in the Gloucestershire Echo, which we have been able to view through chronographs at the local studies library. Further sentiment is expressed in other local papers such as the Cheltenham Chronicle.

Both James and Anna are focusing on the actions and the role of individuals involved in the suffrage movement in Cheltenham. James is focusing on Harriet McIlquham, the campaigner for equal rights and the presence of women in local government, and Madame Borovikovski(y), one of the first members of her local suffrage branch to be imprisoned for involvement in the cause of women’s enfranchisement. These women represent a rarely told history of the suffrage movement in Cheltenham. Anna is looking at Mrs Frances (Rosa) Swiney, who was the President of the Cheltenham’s Woman’s Suffrage Society as well as publishing widely on women’s rights. She is also looking at Mrs Florence Eagerny, who subscribed to many groups in Cheltenham, including the Women’s Freedom League and the Women’s Social and Political Union. Eagerney is also significant because of her husband’s involvement in the women’s rights movement. Mr Eagerney was the honorary secretary of the Cheltenham Branch of the Women’s Freedom League (WFL) in 1911, and in 1913 he became the President of the Tewkesbury Branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.


James is organising a video to be made showing the opinions and thoughts of local residents about the suffrage movement.

Laura is looking at contemporary suffrage groups, including those that were unsuccessful. The active groups include the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Society (NUWSS), the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and the more militant Women’s Freedom League (WFL). It is interesting to note that even the militant group was not prepared to damage property or use violence, even though they were willing to break the law. Their spokesperson, Florence Earengey, discussed with the local papers the violence used by the WSPU. As far back as the 1870s, there was considerable support for women’s suffrage in Cheltenham and later it was thought that many joined the NUWSS in order to support the cause.

The Battle of Tewkesbury

Project Group: Mike Barnes, Michael Holmes, Laura Hunt, Shauna Ralph, Becky Turner

Our group project aims to identify whether the Gastons field in Tewkesbury played a major part in the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471. The Battle of Tewkesbury was a vital battle in the Wars of the Roses, being one of the most significant battles from the time because it subsequently ended the war. Our goal is to determine whether the Gastons field was used in this battle, or if the battle took place elsewhere in Tewkesbury.


On 26 February 2018, we visited Tewkesbury as a group to visit the Gastons and surrounding fields from the Battle Trail. As well as this, we spent some time in the Heritage Centre to gain inspiration and learn how the town presents the history of the battle. We also visited Tewkesbury Abbey, which is believed to be a major area for where the soldiers fled to during the battle.

Whilst we were visiting the field, it soon became clear that, as a group, we are enthusiastic about archaeological findings. As a result, David Howell is planning to arrange a group dig for us to try to find any clues from the battle in order to help us determine whether or not this field was a site of battle. We believe this will be extremely useful for our project as finding material evidence of items from the battle would help us solidify our answer to the project as to whether the field was a major part in the battle.


As well as the trip, we meet regularly to discuss our findings. We discuss what we have found out during the week running up to our meetings and where we currently stand with our research. As well as discussing what we have discovered so far, we also discuss what we hope to have achieved by the time we meet up again the following week. Thus, this gives us a good overview of the progress of the group work and means we are not overloading ourselves. We also discuss what we want as the outcomes of this project and every week we discuss what we would like to see on the panels we are preparing for the project exhibition.

Slum Clearances in the 1930s

Project group: Christian Colson, Aashika Gurung, Brittany Moore, Ffion Page, Ben Sheldon, Riley Woodman

Our group aims to investigate and develop a better understanding of what happened to Cheltenham’s Lower High Street during the period of slum clearance in the 1930s. Cheltenham Town Council proposed two Slum Clearance Programmes, one in 1934 and the other in 1935, which affected areas dotted across Cheltenham, with the streets coming off the Lower High Street receiving the majority of the attention.[1] It is worth noting that this was not the first time that there had been attempts at improving the housing situation in this area.

We plan to investigate why these houses needed to be removed, how the council planned to remove and replace the houses, and how people felt about being moved to another area and their homes being destroyed. We plan to find particular houses to focus on and track the changes that were made to them, in order to show the specific impacts that these changes had on the area.

So far, we have found that the main drive behind the Slum Clearance Programmes was concerns about the health of the inhabitants in those properties. Many of the buildings around the Lower High Street were not built to a high standard, which meant that people were more likely to become ill. We believe that changes in national government legislation prompted the concern for people’s health in their housing, and we are currently researching this possibility.

We have also discovered that the houses that were deemed unsatisfactory were not all demolished and rebuilt all at once. The council gradually bought property from landlords or, where possible, pressurised them to make changes to their property to make it more habitable. We also came across various plans for housing for those affected by the Slum Clearance Programmes. It is interesting to note that these new houses were to be rented at a particular price, to ensure that they were not inaccessible to the intended tenants.

There are also some accounts of how some people who rented out property in that area were concerned that they were losing their livelihood. There were also concerns from some people about being moved away from the businesses they owned on the High Street. This resentment towards being pushed out of their homes meant that there was some resistance to the process. Most residents raised formal objections through the Town Council. Other residents refused entry to inspectors who came to investigate their property. However, there were some landlords who were willing to make changes to fit the guidelines, if they were able to, and others were willing to sell their property to the council, so there was not universal resistance to the idea of housing improvement.

[1] Jill Waller, Heather Atkinson, Sue Rowbotham (Cheltenham Local History Society), A Chronology of Housing for the Poor in Cheltenham, p. 15.

[2] Steven Blake, Cheltenham: A Pictorial History, 1996.

Gloucester History Walks

Project Group: Rebekah Dinwoodie, Dawn Fullwood, Andrew Jungelson, Amelia Whittle

Our group project aims to identify key places of historic interest in the city of Gloucester, and place them on a map with a circular walk. We are producing a leaflet so tourists and locals alike can find new places, and we are including a section for children.

The primary focus of this project is to educate visitors to the City, and make the experience enjoyable. We aim to research and analyse sites of interest, their facilities, and their location on a map. The central focus will be on two categories: places to visit (such as museums), and places to look at the architecture and interesting statues. We will provide key information for each of these, demonstrating accessibility, admission prices and opening times.

We have gathered information on all sites we believe would be interesting to visitors, and have removed some from our list due to expensive admissions, boring sites or lack of information.

We visited Gloucester on the 23 January 2018, and very quickly realised that designating a walk would not be beneficial, due to the length of the proposed walk as well as time taken to explore each site. We have decided instead to place the key sites on a map in a fashion so visitors can walk logically to them all if they wish. Alternatively, visitors can section off the map and spend a day at each part of the City to experience more fully the Historical Sites of Gloucester.

The three most interesting sites we visited are the Mariner’s Chapel (the information found out post-visit made it extremely interesting!), the Tailor of Gloucester, and the City Museum.13273088134_4cb5f8f72f_b

Mariner’s Chapel

The Mariner’s Chapel is located on the docks, and was created by an evangelical Christian who wanted to bring faith to seamen and boatmen. They produced leaflets and Bibles in multiple languages in order to make religion more accessible to everyone. They also held sermons on ships for those who were unable to moor for long, or who were extremely busy.

The Tailor of Gloucester is an extremely interesting Museum based on the work of Beatrix Potter. The Museum is located in the house Beatrix Potter illustrated as being the House of the Tailor, and the interior has been decorated as Potter illustrated it in her book. Downstairs is the kitchen, and upstairs contains artefacts about Beatrix Potter’s works – including the waistcoat the local WI created based upon the novel!

The House of the Tailor of Gloucester


The City Museum, or the Museum of Gloucester, was an incredible experience for our group when we visited! Not only were Richard III books on sale for £1 per hardback, but we were also allowed free admission into the ground floor of the Museum. With dinosaurs, local history dating back to the Romans, and Gloucestershire wildlife, it was varied and enjoyable.